"Listen, and be brave": On leadership and the 5pm project

In my last blog post, I mentioned that my faith community, which was the 5pm congregation of Collins Street Baptist Church, had its last church service. I wrote: “There was a sense that the community itself contained something good and rare and precious, but somehow the form in which we met was inhibiting those things.” We would be meeting for meals in faith that one way or another, God would show up.

What we are committed to doing is making space for God. So far we have had one meal: a ‘bring a random ingredient and see what we can cook up’ evening. We turned our assortment of foods (tomatoes, lots of eggs and eggplants, silverbeat-with-earwigs, fennel, an orange, etc) into something delicious. I like the metaphorical component of such events, but then again I wasn’t the head chef!

‘Making space for God’ is easier said than done. It requires a kind of ‘holding back’ of all the activity that we want to use to crowd God out. I think that underneath it all, it’s our own anxiety that crowds God out. It is scary to let go of our own veneer of control, and enter a reality where we don’t know what will happen next.

And so, we crowd God out.

We crowd God out when we over-structure our time together, such that nothing unexpected is allowed to occur.

We crowd God out when we have no structure, no ceremony, such that our own anxiety drives us to fill all available space with easier activities.

I am convinced that the ‘holding back’ of all those things that crowd God out requires leadership. But it doesn’t work with the ‘I have all the answers so follow me’ kind of leadership we are used to. Clear-cut answers also have a way of crowding God out.

Lately I’ve been thinking about leadership as hospitality. When you host a meal, you create a space using food and perhaps furniture, courses, beverages, decorations etc, for you and your guests to experience one another. The very best hospitality, in this sense, provides you and your guest with freedom just to be themselves, without, as Henri Nouwen says, “attempting to make the stranger [or guest, for all guests are strangers, ultimately] over into a modified version of ourselves.”

I think that good leaders lead like good hosts. They create the space that is necessary for us to truly experience each other, and for us to truly experience the transcendence of God. They offer what they have of themselves – a meal, a thought, a prayer, a liturgy, a song, a game, a joke – but they do so in a way that others can participate in. 

Another metaphor: Together, as a community, we are writing a story. It’s not like a book that is written by one person, in immutable ink and a hard back cover. It’s like one of those collective stories that people tell sometimes around a camp fire, where each person offers a sentence with space for the next person to continue. The stories are a bit messy, often hilarious, and always unexpected, because no one person has control. The story ends only when the group decides it should end, or when enough people walk back to their tents yawning and saying good night.

For a good story, participants require two things: deep listening, and great courage. We only know what to say, and when to say it, when we listen deeply to the storytellers who have come before. Equally, we only know what to say, and when to say it, when we draw from our own unique experience of our world and courageously offer something of ourselves to continue to the story.

Listen, and be brave.

Listen, and be brave.

I want this for me, and I want this for everybody else in my 5pm community. As we make space for ourselves and each other in this way, I believe we make space for God as well. I believe that God will show up.